The Brewster F2A Buffalo:
The little fighter that could . . . and did!
Quite possibly the best Air Force of the Second World War, in terms of kill-to-loss ratio, belonged to the Finland, an ally of Germany. And one of the most ironic results of that war was that the preferred fighter of the Finns is widely considered today to be the worst fighter of the war, an aircraft that failed in every other theatre in which it participated. But what about this diminutive plane, was it's performance really as poor as historians claim?
The Brewster B-239 (U.S. Navy designation F2A) was created in response to the United States Navy's request for a modern aircraft to replace the Grumman F3F pursuit plane. Four aircraft manufactures threw their hat in the ring. The Curtiss-Wright Company proposed a variant of its P-36 Hawk with reinforced landing gear and a tail hook. Seversky offered similar modifications to their P-35. Grumman made the natural progression of its line with the F4F Wildcat. And the small Brewster Aeronautical Corporation of New York City presented a stocky, barrel-like fighter designed by Dayton T. Brown.
In photographs the latter appeared smaller than it really was and looked more like a caricature of a high performance aircraft than the real thing. The little fighter from the little company seemed a definite underdog.
However, the U.S. Navy chose the modest fighter (commonly known as the "Peanut Special" by American pilots) for service. On June 11th of 1938 Brewster received a request for fifty-four F2As.
The little Brewster secured itself a place in the annals of American naval aviation history as the first all metal monoplane fighter to serve in the U.S. Navy. Other innovations were the incorporation of flaps, retractable landing gear, controllable pitch and constant speed propeller, and a fully enclosed cockpit.
The F2A-1 was a light and agile plane. It sported forgiving and pleasant flight characteristics. It was powered by a nine cylinder Wright R-1820-34 engine, which gave it a maximum speed of 311mph at 18,000 feet. Its weight was a feathery 5,040lbs. Both its range (1,095 miles) and initial climb (3,060 ft./min.) benefited from this. The armament was three .50 caliber machine guns and one .30 caliber machine gun, a relatively heavy, though odd, armament for its time.
However, the little fighter did have flaws. The landing struts could not withstand the sustained rigors of hard carrier landings, and after numerous landings would often snap. Although a crippling defect for a carrier-born fighter, this was of little consequence in reality as the Brewster was used only by land based squadrons during the coming war. Unfortunate for Brewster Aeronautical and the F2A was the timing of the stocky pursuit ship's introduction. During the late 1930's the aviation field was rapidly changing.
Technologies that were cutting edge one day often became old hat the next. Though only introduced little more than a year before the beginning of World War Two, newer types already outperformed the F2A when it entered combat. On top of that, Brewster Aeronautical made the mistake of attempting to fill large orders without a firm industrial base. The 205 F2As built for the Navy coupled with the order of 302 export B-239s from foreign governments were enough to swamp the small company.
Nevertheless, B-239s were operational with a handful of nations by 1941, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Britain, and Australia. By the outbreak of the Pacific war a number of British Royal Air Force, Commonwealth, and Dutch squadrons in Southeast Asia were equipped with the improved B-339 model.
The British (who nicknamed the fighter "Buffalo"), realizing it had limited potential against the more advanced German aircraft, banished it to the Empire's Asian possessions. It was believed that the potential enemy there, Japan, could not build anything capable of competing with it.
When the Japanese attacked on 7-8 December 1941 it immediately became apparent that the Allies were woefully unprepared. Many B-339s were destroyed at the outset on the ground. RAAF squadron 21 lost eight planes on December 8th. In fact, most Buffaloes were smashed on the ground, not the air. This was due to the utter surprise and confusion that caused by the initial Japanese surprise attack.
It wasn't any safer in the air. The little Brewster's main antagonist was the IJN's Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The Zero fighter could outperform the Buffalo in most respects. It was faster in both climb and level flight, more agile and maneuverable, and had a more powerful armament. Many of the advantages held by the vaunted Zero were shared by its Army counterpart the Nakajima Ki-43, which may have been mistaken for Zeroes over Southern Asia.
However, the B-339's poor showing in Southern Asia can not be fully explained by the Buffalo's obsolescence. Over France, pilots in equally outmoded Curtiss Hawk fighters gave a good account of themselves before being overwhelmed by the Luftwaffe's Bf-109s. And, although the B-339 was an older design than the Zero, that does not mean that a skilled pilot was not capable of achieving success in one.
In most cases, battles are not decided by technological superiority alone. On the contrary, several other factors were involved in the sound defeat of Allied forces over Southern Asia. The quality of pilots was a factor. Most of the Allied pilots were fresh from training squadrons and had seen no prior combat, whereas the Japanese aviators had been fighting in China for the better part of a decade.
To make matters worse, most of the Dutch pilots in SE Asia had never previously flown an aircraft as advanced as the B-339. The Japanese also had a strong numerical advantage. As previously mentioned there were precious few Buffaloes available, and many of those were destroyed at the outset.
Finally, the Allies had developed very little information about Japanese fighters and tactics. This lapse in intelligence forced them to fight on Japanese terms, and they were unable to exploit the foibles of the Zero and Ki-43. These shortcomings are illustrated by the initial failure of the Hurricane and Spitfire fighters that replaced the B-339.
Ironically, the F2A saw practically no wartime service with the United States Navy. The U.S. had been replacing its Buffaloes; due mostly to the difficulties Brewster Aeronautical was having producing the fighter in adequate numbers. The new Grumman Wildcat was, in any case, superior in performance to the little F2A and was quickly supplanting it before the war broke out.
There was only one action in which the Peanut Special flew in U.S. colors. That was with Marine squadron VMF-22 stationed at Midway Island. On June 4th 1942 eighteen F2As along with four F4F Wildcats scrambled in defense of the strategically placed island.
At Midway the Marine Buffaloes tore through a formation of 107 Japanese planes and claimed eight attack bombers. However, once the escorting Zeroes were able to engage them things went downhill fast. All but five of the F2As and two of the four F4Fs were dispatched during the fight. Only one Japanese fighter fell to the Peanut Specials. Capt. William Humbard claimed an A6M in a head-on pass.
In the month of October 1920 Poland declared its independence from a weakened Russia. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland also separated from Russia in quick succession. However, after the joint German-Russia invasion of Poland in September of 1939, the Soviets were keen on taking back the territories they had lost. These Baltic states were sent an ultimatum: turn over air and naval bases or suffer the consequences. Finland was the only country to resist.
The result was what has become known as the Winter War, which began on November 30th 1939. Representatives from Finland had previously appealed to the U.S. State Department for modern aircraft, specifically the B-239. Their case was reinforced once the Winter War began. The State department agreed to divert forty-three B-239s originally built for the Navy to the Finns. Brewster built a forty-fourth out of spare parts.
Unfortunately, these aircraft were not ready until the end of the conflict. The heavily outnumbered Suomen Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force) was forced to use a mixed bag of Gloster Gladiator, Fokker D.XXI, Fiat G50, and Morane Saulnier MS 406 fighters. After a heroic struggle the Finns were defeated. On March 13th 1940 they were forced to cede ten percent of their land to the Soviet Union.
When Hitler launched the invasion of Russia in June of 1941, the Soviets bombed Finnish targets along the Finland-Soviet border. Finland immediately allied itself with Germany. This was not because the Finns supported the Nazi regime but, like the unholy alliance of the Western Allies with the Soviets, merely a battle against a common foe.
At the beginning of hostilities, Finland had a mere 307 aircraft. The Soviets had a large assortment of both modern and outdated fighters including the I-152, I-153, MIG-1, MIG-3, Yak-1, and Yak-7; plus Spitfires, Hurricanes, P-40s, and P-39s supplied by the Western Allies. Despite overwhelming numerical and, in many cases, qualitative superiority the "Pylly Walteri" (the Finns nickname for the B-239) performed exceedingly well against the Soviets Air Force. By the end of the Continuation War (as the Finns dubbed it) they had downed 496 aircraft, losing only 19 B-239s.
How can one explain the contradictory performance of the diminutive Brewster fighter in the hands of the Allies and the Finns? Against the Japanese, faulty intelligence, numerical inferiority, and inexperienced pilots contributed as much to the defeat of the Allied Air Forces in South East Asia as the Buffalo's obsolescence.
But fortune smiled on the little plane during its debut over Northern Europe. Although the Soviets had the advantage of numbers and some of its fighter aircraft were technically superior, for the most part Soviet pilots were mediocre. The best Russian flyers were thrown against the Luftwaffe, which was understandably considered the bigger threat. Also, the bulk of the modern Soviet fighters were employed in the attempt to stem the German invasion. This meant that the Russian pilots on the Finnish Front mostly had to make due with out-dated types such as the I-15 biplane fighter. Furthermore, the experienced, skilled, and determined Finnish pilots refused to bow to their Soviet rivals.
Ironically, the best kill-to-loss of any fighter in the Second World War (26-to-1) was garnered by an aircraft that is widely considered the worst fighter of the war. But was it really? The main reason for the Brewster's ineffectiveness was not due to any design flaw; it was simply surpassed by newer types. Moreover, there were fighters fielded by both sides in the conflict which were more outdated then the B-239. And none of these came close to the record set by the Buffalo in Finland.
The Brewster F2A was certainly not the best fighter of World War II, but it wasn't the worst. Its superb performance in the Continuation War reflected the conflict itself, a true David and Goliath struggle. There the modest Buffalo proved itself to be the little fighter that not only could, but did.
Copyright 2004 by Patrick Masell. All rights reserved.